Grand Union Canal Race 2017

Looking rather chuffed with my trophy :)

Looking a bit chuffed with my awesome trophy 🙂

It’s nearly two weeks since GUCR and I’m still processing the experience. It would be fair to say that I completely obsessed over this race for the preceding six months and training took priority over most other things (like my social life). But I don’t believe in doing things by halves and I was just not willing to stand on the start line feeling under-prepared.

There’s a certain amount of folklore around GUCR in ultra-running circles; it’s an absolute classic and I’d heard nothing but positive things about the race and organisers Dick Kearne and Keith Godden. For the uninitiated, it’s Britain’s longest non-stop race, covering 145 miles of historic canals from Gas Street Basin in Birmingham to Paddington Basin/Little Venice in London. I spent months poring over blog posts about the race, so apologies if this is on the long side; it’s partly for the memories of what was an incredibly special event, and partly to pass on knowledge about the race from my corner of the interweb to prospective runners.

I’m not someone with bucketloads of self-belief, but I’m a realist and like to think fairly aware of my ability as a runner; following a 19:08 finish at the SDW100 last June, 17:24 at A100 in October, then two marathons in 3:06 and 3:07 this year in April and May, I definitely felt as capable as I’d ever been of having a good crack at GUCR. I’d studied the entrants list and felt like good competition could come from Wendy Shaw and Izzy Cairns, both runners with really impressive race times.

The week prior the race was a reading week at university and, while I had grand plans to study, I became completely consumed with race logistics. There was a lot to organise; the duration of the race meant I’d had to organise three crews, each for 12 hour shifts (that included post-race duties I didn’t want to overlook, like being driven home 🙂 ), and I was extremely fortunate to have willing friends and family to fulfil these roles. I shopped for food (knowing fully well I wouldn’t eat most of it), met my crew to talk things through, and meticulously filled in the sheet of estimated arrival times at each crew point. It was part guesswork and made me feel a bit sick – the race started to hit home when I was having to commit to writing what time I was hoping to be through CP9 having run 133 miles.

On Friday lunchtime my Dad drove over and we started the journey from London to Birmingham at about 1pm; I’d envisaged arriving in Birmingham in the early afternoon and having time to do a last minute shop and scope out the start line, but in reality, heavy traffic and a stop off for Jon meant we only just made registration at 8pm. I’d hoped to join runners in the pub next door but by the time we’d ferried things from the car, it was bed time.

I set my alarm at 4:40am to maximise sleep, knowing I would be on my feet for so long and that I could probably get away without eating too much for breakfast, providing I was disciplined about eating early on in the race. I also did that thing you’re never meant to do of wearing a new vest, although everything else was tried and tested. I opted for Hokas which seemed like the most sensible footwear choice over the distance.

I was insistent we left the hotel early at 5:35am, despite the fact that we staying practically on the start line; I wanted to soak up the pre-race atmosphere and the minute we turned the corner on to Gas Street I had goose bumps. It was just a load of runners milling around and a van for drop bags, but it was more that fact that it was the culmination of a few years’ of curiosity about the event and six months’ graft.

After a few nervous hellos and a briefing from Dick, we were off at 6am prompt, led by a couple of chancers who were probably still out from the night before.

Spot the non-runners at the front! Pic from GUCR

Start to CP1 (Catherine de Barnes Bridge) 10.7 miles [Plan – 1:42, actual – ~1:44]

The first part of the race was stunning, along the waterways of central Birmingham in the morning light. The weather was billed to be ‘scorchio’ which, having read Debbie MC’s blog from her 2012 experience in torrential rain, I was happy about, despite not loving running in hot weather. Showers were forecast for the morning and the heavens opened just before CP1 on a particularly leafy stretch which sheltered us from the worst of the rain.


First few miles of the race

I was running in first lady position from the start, which wasn’t really the plan – I’m rubbish with pressure. I was trying to stick to 9 minute miles and my race plan allowed for 9:36min/miles for the first 25 miles, so I was surprised and slightly pissed off to arrive into CP1 a couple of minutes outside my schedule.

My race strategy was for a sub-30 hour finish based on something in between my SDW100 and A100 times – I’d finished the former feeling fresh and latter, well, I was in the bathroom 10 minutes after crossing the line. I predicted a gradual deterioration of pace, and worked out my arrival times at each crew point based on the following. To be fair, they were completely arbitrary and I didn’t really plan on trying to stick to them – secretly I wanted to be ahead of schedule which I knew would make me feel good, mentally. So in a way, the plan was to trick myself into thinking I was doing better than I was by running to a slower schedule, which sounds a bit perverse, but always seems to work for me in races. I guess I’m quite a simple person really.

25 miles – 4 hours (9:36 min/mile ave pace)
50 miles – 8:30 hours (10:12min/mi) – +4:30 hours
75 miles – 13:30 hours (10:48 min/miles) +5 hours
100 miles – 19 hours (11:24 min/miles) +5.5 hours
125 miles – 25 hours (12:00 min/miles) +6 hours
145 miles – 30 hours (12:24 min/miles)

CP1 to CP2 (Hatton Locks) 22.5 miles [Plan – 3:31, actual – ~3:33]

I’d successfully eaten half a bagel (saved from breakfast), a couple of baby foods and Gu choc PB gels by CP2, which was good going, given that I’m rubbish at eating on races. I was slightly over my target time again, but reasoned that the course was probably a bit long or my watch was inaccurate, given it was set to lower GPS accuracy. Steph, Andy and Jon were crewing for the day shift and they switched my bottles and fed me coffee – part of the all-important constant caffeine drip throughout the race. I’d done that thing of foregoing (well, vastly decreased my intake of) caffeine the week before the race which wasn’t as bad as I expected, other than the time I had to drink a matcha latte in a cafe instead of a flat white when I met Nic for pre-race prep.


Pic – Steph. One of the lovely locks 🙂

CP2 to CP3 (Birdingbury Bridge) 35.9 miles [Plan – 5:48, actual – ~5:40] and CP3 to CP4 (Heart of England) 53.1 miles [Plan – 9:01, actual – 8:35]

I’d recced the Napton Junction to Braunston Tunnel stretch, as it involved a left turn and short section away from the canal, which looked harmless on the map but I knew could be confusing after nearly 50 miles on my feet. Huge thanks to Paul Mason for his advice on this – I’d spotting on Facebook that he was putting in a lot of recces and I was keen to focus on a few key stretches ahead of the race. I know plenty of people who’ve run GUCR without setting a foot on the course and the detailed course maps are really easy to follow so recceing is by no means essential, but I felt happier having checked out a few stretches.

A good stretch of this was over grassy, slightly bumpy terrain and I took a tumble while overtaking another runner. It was a really scenic bit surrounded by hills and fields – I must confess that, completely unfairly, I never really imagined it would be so stunning. The river was full of bank holiday punters – a few asked where we were running to but I didn’t have the chance to clock their reaction when I called out, “London!” I ran with Paul Beechey who was looking incredibly comfortable and was great company; he would go on to finish second and run a superb race.


CP4 to CP5 (Navigation Bridge) 70.5 miles [Plan – 12:36, actual – 11:35]

I’d given up on trying to eat real food by this stretch. Grapes were OK. Baby food was getting a bit sickly. Choc milk and Mountain Fuel were keeping me moving forwards. My usual mantra of ‘it’s just running and eating’ was starting to fail me a bit, as both things were starting to feel like an effort. I was feeling nauseous and I knew the only way to handle this was to have what I would have once upon a time called a ‘tactical puke’ (usually preceded by a lot of alcohol).  I think I’d read someone else’s GUCR blog about it so it seemed legit. I’d never run 145 miles before so I had no idea what I was doing. I stopped in a quiet spot after CP5 out of sight of my crew or other spectators/runners in case they were worried about me and felt much, much better for it for the next 30 miles or so. I’ll try and spare too much graphic detail, but I basically felt rough for a lot of the rest of the race and was sick about four times, and with hindsight I’m surprised my race went so well considering. Mind over matter, I guess. I’ve also promised myself I won’t dwell on it too much in this race report in case I come back to read it and convince myself I don’t want to do Spartathlon.

CP5 to CP6 (Water Eaton) 84.5 miles [Plan – 15:21, actual – 14:20]

I went through the official halfway point at 72.5 miles in 11:58; my brain goes a bit mushy and I can’t cope with sums while running, but I could just about work out that I was well on schedule for my sub-30 target. There was a crew switchover on this stretch; my Dad and Nic took over from Steph and Andy, and I changed into a tshirt ready for the night, babywipped my face and felt like a new person. I’d borrowed a SPOT tracker from a friend which was attached to the front, right hand side of my race vest with cable ties and was bouncing around and had started to annoy me, so I cut it off and gave it to Jon to carry. He ran with me from 80-95 miles, then when Nic took over from 95-110, I forgot to get it back for the duration of the race, so it did a few stretches in the car and a trip around Tesco for emergency provisions. Oops.

The night shift and a stunning sunset

The night shift and a stunning sunset

CP6 to CP7 (Grand Junction Arms) 99.8 miles [Plan – 18:57 , actual – 17:33]

There was a key nav point at 98 miles at Marsworth Juntion that I’d recced, but still wasn’t 100% sure about. I was finding setting mini-goals to be a really effective way of motivating myself to keep moving forward, such as getting to the next crew point by a certain time (say, five miles in an hour). Nic was really good company and although I wasn’t really feeling that chatty, he was great at gauging how I was feeling. In particular, he encouraged me to wash my hands and face after I was ‘ill’ which helped me feel human again – a bit like that best friend who holds your hair back for you when you’ve drunk too much 🙂

I did some rough maths at around this stage, after clearing the 100 mile point in roughly 17:35, and realising I only had to run 45 miles in under 10 hours to be on for the female course record.

CP7 to CP8 (Springwell) 120.3 miles [Plan – 23:47, actual – ~21:47]

Despite the fact I was struggling to eat, caramel stroopwaffles were going down really well – of course it was Sod’s law that when I bought them, I assumed there was no way I’d get through all ten in the pack, so ate two walking around the shops. I barely touched the rest of my food. The eight left went down really well and were like gold dust; fortunately Nic had a few Gu caramel waffles spare which were similar.

My Dad was keen I had company for the overnight stretches; it would be fair to say that there are some interesting folk living on the canal, but I didn’t encounter anything that felt unsafe – the few drunk people I ran past in the wee hours either completely ignored me or cheered.

CP8 to CP9 (H’borough Tavern) 133 miles [Plan – 27:15, actual – 24:40]

Jon was getting excited by this stage and reporting back to his parents on my progress – he was practically on the phone to them telling them I was on course for the CR, but I still had a long way to go so discouraged him. He ran with me for most of this stretch; he was fantastic and tried to make conversation but I just wasn’t in the mood. It was at this point that I think my Dad was making frantic calls to Susie, who was due to start crewing at about 6am; the plan was for him to drive to near the finish line, have a few hours sleep, as he’d been up for over 24 hours, then run the last six miles in with me. But given that I was two and half hours ahead of schedule, he lost this precious sleep time. Sorry about that, Dad.


CP9 to finish (Little Venice) 145 miles [Plan – 30:00, actual – 27:26]

It was awesome to see Susie – she was so encouraging and thrilled by my progress. I was broken by this stage but the sun was shining and it was a stunning morning. I gave up on trying to eat for the last three hours or so, knowing I could get by on liquid nutrition for this relatively short distance. Reaching Bulls Bridge junction came as a huge relief – this landmark was the last key nav point and it was just 13.5 miles to the finish line. Six miles before the finish, my Dad took over pacing duties – we’d agreed we’d run the last bit in together.

I had very little left to give at this stage and, knowing I was comfortably under the course record time, we walked the last three miles in to the finish, seeing friends Rhianon and Sarah Saywer (off to intercept Tom, who was also running). They were extremely encouraging, but I was on the verge of tears.


Six miles to go – completely exhausted – face says it all

Approaching the finish line, I could hear cheering and cowbells (thanks to the Fulham Running Club contingent who had come to support). I wanted to muster up the energy to break into a run, but it turned out to be more of a ridiculous looking hobble.

There were a lot of tears at the finish line, and I must confess I sobbed on Dick’s shoulder as he gave me my medal. I think they were tears of relief, exhaustion and just sheer surprise as the result sank in. I had broken the female course record by 37 minutes and finished third over all. I was also completely blown away by the support at the finish line – thanks everyone that came down. It meant a lot. And the watering can trophy was the icing on the cake.

After sitting down at the finish line I physically couldn’t get up again and had to be carried to Susie’s car by Jon and Nic. Once home, I went to bed (it was about 12pm on Sunday) and didn’t emerge for 24 hours. I was absolutely exhausted. My left hip and ankle were swollen and my feet very blistered – I don’t usually succumb so badly.

Being carried

Being carried

The aftermath of the race has involved resting a lot – I promised myself two weeks off but I must admit I am chomping at the bit to get out for a run in my GUCR tshirt. Obviously it’ll have to be for a parkrun or something else short and ridiculously showy-offy.

Results board - pic by GUCR

Results board – pic by GUCR

I really can’t thank Dick and Keith enough for such a fantastic race. It really did live up to every thing I’d expected. I’ll definitely be back to volunteer or crew a willing victim next year 🙂

Official results here:

Full GPS track here (minus the last few miles when my watch ran out of battery):


Race report: The Zurich marathon

Zurich marathon

I’ve harboured a desire to improve my marathon time for the past few years, and I’m going to put that out there before starting this. As a runner I don’t like to pigeon hole myself and, while my preferred race is something you’d probably class as ultra-trail, road running inevitably features a lot in my life. I live in London and run everywhere to fit in the majority of my training so, to be honest, I consider it to be pretty invaluable.

On one hand, I like that ultra running isn’t all bragging about your road PBs and boring people with your race splits, as is maybe a stereotype of road running. It’s more about the experience, running wild, views over times, etc etc. But it’s also glaringly apparent to me that most of the UK’s (and world’s) top ultra runners are also pretty speedy on roads too. Your Sally Fawcetts, Sophie Grants, etc, have fast marathon PBs, plus I’ve watched friends I admire edge closer to the magical sub-3 mark (Sorrell, Kate). And, you know, Spartathlon.

So that’s how I found myself at the start line of the Zurich marathon, wondering if this would be the race to beat my longstanding PB. The last six months of training had gone well. After the Autumn 100 last October, I’d had a few weeks off then pretty much commenced Grand Union Canal Race training while I still had the miles in my legs. I sketched out a 6 month training plan, peaking at 95 mile weeks, which initially looked daunting. But consistency paid off and my legs felt good throughout – I kept my weekly mileage increases small, with a few cutback weeks. Call me a traditionalist, but I’ve always been a firm believer in big mileage, and wondered if this would also pay dividends for a marathon PB. With regular trips to track for speed work, mixed with a couple of long marathon-paced runs (plus a lot of fannying around on the North Downs Way and Lake District, which I classed as  cross training), come Zurich my legs felt in great shape.

As well as good physical conditions, mentally, having my family around me was always going to be a big positive too. Zurich would be my Dad’s Z race in his alphabet challenge, plus my brother Edd and husband Jon would also be running. Edd probably won’t thank me for saying this, but he possibly signed up in the very early stages of my Dad’s challenge three-or-so years ago without necessarily giving much though to actually running 26.2 miles. But, being the good big sister I am, I wrote him a training plan for Christmas. We were in this together.

I had the splits for an evenly-paced 3:15 finish committed to memory: 7:20-25 min/mile average pace, 45 minute 10k, 1:36 half. Even so though, I couldn’t resist lining up in front of the 3:15 pacers. I’ve run enough marathons to know my tendency is to go out a bit too hard (then struggle after 20 miles), so when, after 5 miles, my watch showed an average pace of 6:55 min/miles, I was a bit worried, but figured it was all bankable. I reached the halfway point in dead-on 1:33 feeling  comfortable – the sun was shining and physically and mentally, everything felt great.

There’s a lot of ritual and superstition involved with my marathon racing strategy, from pre-race breakfast to fuelling during the race. I don’t think I’ve ever exceeded three gels; despite wondering if a fourth would be beneficial, my stomach always tries to dissuades me. I had a SiS electrolyte gel after 50 minutes (because, heat, sweat), a caffeine one at half way (because, caffeine), then an orange one (my favourite flavour which I know wont make me want to hurl when I’m tired and potentially grumpy) at around 30k. There were regular water stops at every 3k – just enough to grab a bottle at each one, but not too many that you were constantly dodging swerving runners and bottles.

The route took in a couple of loops around the city, then headed along the side of Lake Zurich and back on itself. There’s just something about out and back courses that I love. I got to cheer on the elites ahead of me, then see my Dad, Edd and Jon on the way back. I waited and waited for the inevitable fade to come, but it didn’t. I found myself overtaking runners ahead of me, and wasn’t sure if it was them slowing down or me speeding up (I’ve since been reliably informed by Strava that it was the former).

The last five or so kilometres were back through the city along streets lined with people cheering. From experience, those final few miles can seem torturously slow, so I pledged to myself not to look for distance markers, just to smile and run strong. I couldn’t resist glancing at my watch though, which was hovering around the three hour mark, as though time had slowed down.

The home stretch came as a surprise, hidden around a corner. As the finish arch came into view, I could just make out 3:05-something on the clock, and I had what can only be described as an ’emotional moment’, where the bittersweetness of the heartbreak of a failed PB attempt three years ago,  combined with knowing I’d put my life into  running for the past year, all came together. 3:06:14 on the clock.

One of the first things I did after crossing the line was buy some roaming data for the day to upload my run to Strava. Best £3 I ever spent. My Dad crossed the line soon afterwards in 3:57, my brother five minutes later, and Jon, who’s been nursing an Achilles injury, not long afterwards. My mum also deserves a medal for supporting my Dad on so many of his races.

If you want to read more about my Dad’s phenomenal achievement of running 26 marathons through the letters of the alphabet, his blog’s here:

Zurich marathon
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Ten things you learn by running 100 miles

1. Hard work pays off. It doesn’t have to be 100, or even 60 or 70 mile weeks. But it has to be consistent and most importantly, it has to be enjoyable. I broke my self-imposed ‘one 100 per year’ rule after recovering quicker than expected following the SDW100, and wanted another crack at running 100 miles, ideally a bit faster. I had a great block of training leading up to the A100 and enjoyed every run. There’s absolutely no shame in putting your heart and soul into something you love doing.

2. You have to run your own race. Always. I knew it was unlikely I’d be able to keep pace with leading ladies Susie and Jess (who finished in an incredible 15:22 and 16:42 respectively). But I knew that if I raced smart, didn’t go out too fast and didn’t lose too much time at aid stations, I’d be OK. My crew were brilliant – as I approached them I’d hold out my empties and swap them with my Dad for full water bottles and food. I think it’s fair to say that we nailed the F1 pitstop style hand over.

3. Always have a plan. I went in with a similar race plan to the SDW100. I secretly wanted a finish time starting with an 18, which was a scary prospect, but I figured if I ran the first 50 miles in 8:30 it would be achievable. Running out to the Ridgeway from race HQ at Goring on the third spur of the race, as my watch clicked over to 50 miles in 7:57 (nearly a 40 minute PB!), I knew I was well on target and deep down a 17-something finisher time also seemed like a possibility.

4. Stuart March takes the best race photos.

5. 100 milers inevitably hurt, but personally the first bit is always the toughest. Regardless of the distance, whether it’s a marathon, 50 or 100 miler, I always find the initial onset of fatigue and soreness in my legs at the 15 or so mile point stresses me out every time and makes me doubt my prep and the race ahead.

6. Falling over while running downhill on the Ridgeway at mile 70 was predictably messy but didn’t hurt as much as I expected. It did result in some impressive war wounds on return to race HQ at Goring and a nice big stratch on the casing of my new Suunto Ambit though.

7. Feeling a bit nauseous is inevable and not necessarily a cause for concern; running 100 miles fuelled by baby food, some fruit and few mars bars could be the reason for that. But it doesn’t mean you’re actually going to be sick, it just means you have to count from one to 100 (and keep on running, of course) and have faith in your fuelling plan.

8. It’s just running all day. And eating. I love doing both these things. Once I realised this the nerves melted away on race morning.

9. Out and back races were you can see and cheer on the rest of the field are also a fantastic experience, and it was incredibly inspiring crossing paths with Susie and Jess on each spur and realising that I was sharing the experience with some phenomenal runners.

10. I couldn’t have run a 100 mile PB of 17:24, coming 3rd lady and 11th overall, without the help of my amazing Dad. Thanks also to my brother who crewed for the first 50 and to James, Nici and all the other staff and volunteers.

All photos by Stuart March and my Dad.

South Downs Way 100 Race Report

I went into this race promising myself it would be my last 100 miler. James, a good friend and five-time hundred mile finisher, can vouch for this too. He was also adamant about kicking the long distance stuff. He’s already toying with the North Downs Way 100 in August and I’ve got my eye on Thames Path 100 next year.

The last time I ran 100 miles (at the NDW100 last year) it was everything I expected running a hundred miles to be. Sore legs and a death march at the end. That. Poor fuelling and a dodgy stomach. That too. I came out happy but stubbornly wanting another crack at finishing in under 24 hours. I was terrified about taking on the distance again – did anyone mention that it’s basically four back-to-back marathons? Best not think about that during the first 10 miles (as you inevitably end up doing).

For the sake of my crew, I went in with a solid pace plan this time, so they knew where I’d be needing them and when. I had rough splits for a sub-24 hour race committed to memory, and printed and stuffed in my race vest (which got covered in mushed banana then fell out fairly early on). I also had the timings for a sub-22 hour finish, which secretly I hoped I’d get closer to.

Start (Winchester) to Queen Elizabeth Country Park (22.6 miles): 59th place and 6th female

James and I set out together, completing a lap of the field fairly slowly and getting stuck behind the bottleneck of runners waiting to enter the trail. We went for an ‘ultra-shuffle’ up the first of the hills to make up some ground. Did I mention we were retiring from 100 mile races? We chatted about this a fair bit. I was conscious that by running hills so early on we looked a bit keen, but I’m a believer in banking miles before my legs feel too trashed.

I found this photo online of us running in perfect unison (we’re even in the same shoes – Pearl Izumi EM N2 trail, which I’m a big fan of*); I prefer running solo in races but his company was exactly what I needed to distract from the nerves and muggy conditions. For me, the perfect race partner is someone that knows when to chat and when to shut up, and having run long stretches of the Atacama Crossing with James he is one of my favourite running companions.

Cat and James

Photo credit: Jon Lavis

At some point during this stretch we ran with someone who’d completed the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles from Birmingham to London, for anyone not au fait with the ultra scene) and recounted how he’d hallucinated at the end and stopped to drink beers with some Rastafarians a few miles before the finish line. This race seems to have made it on to my bucket list.

My fuelling plan was to have a baby food in a squeezy pouch every hour (fruit flavours, not your lamb casserole sort) and I got under way with this. I ate a cheese sandwich at the first aid station ten miles in and was keen for my stomach not to end up feeling as bad as it had done on the NDW100, when all I could take on for the last 50-ish miles (and 15 hours) was Frijj chocolate milk (as a choc milk obsessive this is not as good as it sounds). The week before the race I assembled a selection of all the food under the sun that I might want to eat – jaffa cakes, mars bars, snickers, flapjacks. I barely touched any of it and survived solely on baby food, a few jaffa cakes, a single mars bar and lots of fruit (watermelon, strawberries, cherries) from the aid stations. With hindsight it doesn’t sound like a lot but it kept me going. My stomach was rock solid (until I arrived home at 3:30am and threw up all over my parents’ front steps).

QECP to Washington (54 miles): 35th place and 6th female

I saw Team Simpson, my crew of Dad (Ultra Dad Simpson!) and Jon (my husband) at QECP. I had a small strop when Jon handed me three gels when I wanted three baby foods. My fault for ambiguious instructions; I’d considered mixing up the two but had no desire for gels by this stage. James and I ran for a short stretch with some guys who recognised me from NDW100 as ‘the person who’d attempted to roll down a hill at around the 60 mile mark to save my sore quads.’ At around 45 miles my left knee started grumbling and I felt less sociable, so pushed on. I saw my crew, had some coffee, James caught up, then all of a sudden we’d reached the half way point, half an hour ahead of schedule. Nine hours to do 50 miles and I must confess, this was when I started wondering if sub-20 hours wasn’t out of the question.

Ditchling beacon SDW pic

Photo credit: Stuart March

Washington to Clayton Windmills (69.9 miles): 20th place and 3rd female

One of my rules of the day was ‘no stopping at aid/crew stations’, so Washington (54 miles) was an in-out affair. I’d lost far too much time at the NDW100 faffing around and had spent nearly 30 minutes at the halfway point. This time around, I saw this as valuable time not to be wasted. Sorry, crew, that meant I didn’t stop and chat much, but I think it was worth it.

People say that 100 milers don’t start until the 50 mile point (or the 80 mile point, depending on who you talk to), and I felt fairly fresh at this stage. Big relief, as I’d had a few dramas the week before, such as a chesty cough and falling over in thin air and bruising my right hip, which made walking painful. On arriving at Bolotphs, the 61 mile point, I was told I was in 5th lady position. I had one of the famous espresso energy balls and pushed up a big hill. I ran with the very lovely Sarah Sawyer for a few miles, who was still smiling from ear to ear and looking strong. I must confess though, I was passing other runners by this stage and feeling great mentally for it. I know it’s not kind, but I’ll reference first lady Debs (Martin Consani) and all-round hero of mine, who said it first: it really gives me a huge boost to be passing people at this stage of the race, especially if they look a little wrecked.

Pacer and little superstar Steph

Clayton Windmills to Southease (84 miles): 19th place and 3rd female

My friend Steph stepped in to pace at Ditchling Beacon. I’d been running mostly alone for several hours by this stage and was quite liking my own company so possibly a little scratchy and not appreciative of the huge commitment on her part. Steph was a little ray of sunshine that, with hindsight, helped the ten mile stretch to Southease pass in a heartbeat. I didn’t even grumble about having to cross the bridge over the railway line or the sight of the huge hill snaking out of the aid station at Southease.

Southease to Eastbourne (100 miles) 18th place and 2nd female

Jon told me there was another female within my sights and we passed her on the hill out of the checkpoint. Having recently been on ‘the other side’ of a race at roughly this stage when I marshalled at Thames Path 100 mile 85, I’d seen some sights that would put you off ultra running forever. But my legs and head were still feeling strong at this late stage. I’d set out with the mantra, ‘if it hurts to walk and it hurts to run, then fecking run!’, and this worked a treat during the final push to Eastbourne, as did the possibility of finishing with a number starting with an 18 (albeit a very slim one). The recce-ing paid off and we didn’t accidentally take the turn-off at mile 97 to Exceat for the Seven Sisters. The famous trig point came into view and we funnelled ourselves down the flint path for the final couple of miles to the finish.

It was a huge relief to see the running track and familiar blue inflatable Centurion finish arch. I expected the emotional, break-down-sobbing-on-my-Dad’s-shoulder finish I’d had at the NDW100, but the tears didn’t come – I felt elated but slightly in shock, almost like I was having an out of body experience. Nineteen hours and eight minutes on the clock and second lady. I waited around excitedly afterwards to see my name on Nici’s famous results whiteboard, to help things sink in. Maybe on another day I’d have beaten 19 hours, but I’ll take a five and a half hour PB. And a chance to do it again next year.

Photo credit – Stuart March

THANK YOU amazing Centurion staff, volunteers, and my crew, Team Simpson. Centurion race report and more photos here.

*Pearl Izumi EM N2 trail shoes – I was sent these to review, something I’m generally hesitant to do, but have to say I’ve loved everything about them and they performed brilliantly on race day.

Travelling Independently in Torres Del Paine National Park

When I was planning my trip to Patagonia I looked online for information about travelling independently in Torres Del Paine National Park and was surprised to find most resources (blogs, websites, travel guides, etc) suggested that only way to see the park was on a tour.

I try to avoid organised tours at all costs and much prefer figuring out my own way around where possible. After doing a bit of research it seemed it was possible to visit the park independently, and when I arrived in Torres del Paine a lot of other travellers also were. Here’s all the information you’ll need if you’re looking to visit the park independently (but please feel free to leave a comment below if there’s anything I haven’t answered).

Photo of Torres del Paine National Park: entrance by Hotel Torres

Near the entrance into Torres del Paine by Hotel Torres, to the east of the park

Getting to Torres del Paine

The nearest airport to Torres del Paine national park is in Punta Arenas, 350km miles south. From here you can catch a local bus to Puerto Natales, the closest town to the park. Buses originate in central Punta Arenas, come via the airport, then make the journey into Puerto Natales, which takes three hours and costs around 5-6,000 Chilean Pesos (CHP). About three bus companies make the journey; ask at the help desk at the airport for the schedule (I’ve included it below for information). There’s also free wifi in the airport, which is handy.

From Puerto Natales, there are numerous public buses to Torres del Paine, leaving from the bus station (on Avenida Espana) at 7:30am (and 2:30pm in high season, from October) and cost 15,000 CHP for an open return. Buses stop first at La Torres, on the east side of the park, then continue to the Administration, on the west side.

You’ll probably need to stay for a night in Puerto Natales either side of your park visit to pick up camping gear, food and bus tickets (I can highly recommend Tin House Patagonia).

Photo of mountains in Torres del Paine national Park

Near to the start of the W trek on the east side

Staying in Torres del Paine

Once in Torres del Paine national park there’s the option of camping or staying in refugios (basic mountain-style lodges). There are also a few luxury hotels on the periphery of the park. The east of the park is privately owned and accommodation here (owned by Fantastico Sur) is more expensive than that in the west of the park (owned by Vertice).

If you’re camping equipment can be rented from tour agencies in Puerto Natales or from the campsites in the park. It’s worth noting that most official campsites don’t open until high season in early October.

If you’re staying in refugios then bring a sleeping bag and towel, as it’s extra to hire these on top of the (already expensive) room rates.


Wrapping up for the strong winds in the park

 Surviving Torres del Paine

Hiking in Torres del Paine is super easy. You don’t need to bring a map and can pick up a free one on entry into the park when you pay the fee (19,000CHP at the time of writing). Hiking trails are marked with orange posts and arrows and it’s pretty much impossible to get lost, as these are practically the only trails in the park. The main trek is ‘The W’, with an extended version, ‘The O – this site describes a bit more about them (more about these below).

I wasn’t brave enough to camp and stayed in the refugios (in fairness though I visited in September, which is winter, plus I reasoned that by the time I’d hired all the necessary camping equipment I probably wouldn’t have saved much money). The refugios were cold but comfortable and had clean (and powerful) showers with hot water.

It’s worth noting that if you want to cook for yourself (which is advisable, as the food served in refugios is horrendously overpriced – like, around £13 for a dry toast and instant coffee breakfast) then you need to bring your own stove or food that either 1. Doesn’t need to be cooked (eg bread, cured meats, cheese, pancakes, jams) and that will last for the duration of your stay, or 2. Can be prepared by adding just boiling water (eg instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes. Although guidebooks and blogs advise that there are kitchen facilities, refugios and campsites don’t provide cooking equipment, only boiling water.

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s no wifi or phone reception in the park, so sadly you’ll have to wait until you return to Puerto Natales before spamming everyone with your photos.

Orange trail markers on the W trek in Torres del Paine national park

The W trek is regularly marked with orange markers – it’s pretty hard to get lost

Hiking the W trek

Most people that visit Torres del Paine complete ‘the W circuit’, starting from the east of the park (Hotel Torres) and finishing in the west (Administration). This can be done in about 4-5 nights (some people do it in less time but in my opinion, visiting the park is a once in a lifetime experience and not something that should be rushed. It’s also possible to hike from west to east and in high season (from October) the ‘O circuit’ is also open, which is roughly twice as long and takes double the amount of time.

Technical mountain trails in Torres del Paine National Park

Some of the harder, more technical mountain trails in Torres del Paine, in the French Valley

What to expect when trekking in Torres del Paine

People I met while hiking in the park likened the trails to those around Chamonix in terms of terrain underfoot. Generally, expect technical mountain trails with stretches with small and large boulders underfoot, as well as scree and loose pebbles.

Easy hikes:

  • The stretch between Hotel Torres and Refugio Los Cuernos is mostly unchallenging, with stunning views over Lago Nordenskjold and a few hills to climb. When I visited a small bridge had collapsed between Hotel Torres and Refugio Los Cuernos, so this stretch involved navigating a small river by climbing over boulders (tricky if you’re hiking with a large backpack).
  • Los Cuernos to Paine Grande: mostly flat with a few undulations and great views across Lago Skottsberg.
The Torres in Torres del Paine national park

The real deal: The famous Torres

Medium/hard hikes:

  • French Valley/Valley del Frances: involves a tough trek up rocky mountain trails, but more than worth it for views of Glacier del Frances and Cerro Ostrava.
  • La Torres: the hike from the base to the towers involves a steep scramble up rocks, snow and ice, but again, is worth it to see the famous towers.

Scree and sandy trails on the path to La Torres

Gear to bring

I’ll be covering the gear that worked in a separate post.

The journey to running 100 miles at the North Downs Way 100 

Cat and Keith NDW100

October 2014 Run the Atacama Crossing in Chile and finish as 2nd female. Race a marathon the week later (also in Chile) and finish as 3rd girl in 3 hours 23 minutes. Win £300 cash. Feel a bit invincible.

November 2014 Return to the UK suffering from a severe case of the post-race blues and in need of a new, big challenge/adventure to cap Atacama. Enter TransGranCanaria 125k (129k?) ultra-hardcore mountain race and North Downs Way 100 mile race.

December 2014 Start training again. Right hip hurts when running over eight miles. Simultaneously ignore it/worry a little.

January 2015 Run 43 miles at the Country to Capital race with friend Susie. Have a laugh but hip feels a bit sore. Somehow beat previous year’s time.

January-March 2015 Carry on tentatively training. Self-diagnose hip pain as possible burstitis. Pain never gets above 2-3 out of 5 on long runs, so cross fingers and carry on.

March 2015 Fly out for TransGranCaria. Run around 70k of 129k before DNFing with a sore hip/bad stomach. A nice Yorkshireman in his early 60s takes me under his wing. He tells the nurses in the medical tent funny stories while I cry and be sick. He lets me sleep on his sofa.

April 2015 Take my hip/legs to see Simon Lamb, then an NHS physio, who diagnoses possible gluteal tendonitis. Prescribes rehab (squats!) and gentle running.

May 2015 Continue to train/rehab hip. Volunteer at the North Downs Way 50 mile race. Spend the day feeding ice cream to ultra runners. Have an great day. Resign myself to probably doing this at the North Downs Way 100 in August, rather than running. Feel OK but a bit sad. Email Centurion Race Volunteer extraordinaire Nicky to register as a volunteer.

June 2015 Have a long-overdue ultra-sound scan on hip. No tendon damage detected. Coincides with running without hip pain again. Feel relieved/a bit worried about having enough time to train for impending 100 miler.

June-July 2015 Squeeze in two 30-ish milers, one along the North Downs Way (where I get very lost) and one at Race to the Stones 50k. Have a bad day at latter and hate races. Never want to do another one. Moan to the marshals about running 100 miles in a month.

July 2015 Walk nearly 30 miles along the NDW three weeks before NDW100 with some friends. Feel a bit more confident about not getting lost on race day.

T-2 weeks Spend lead up to the race in complete denial. Don’t want to talk logistics with my crew.

T-1 week Have crippling fear about running 100 miles. Realise my Dad can’t crew and pace. Realise I really need pacers too. Luckily I have superhero friends Susie and Gemma on hand to help.

Race day Get to the race start OK. Aim to just get between checkpoints, rather than focussing on the overall distance. Scenery is amazing. Weather is perfect. Hills aren’t as bad as I expected. See friends along the way. Feel good. Get to 50 miles in ten hours, bang on target. Eat some pasta. Pick up my first pacer, Susie, then Gemma at 60 miles, then Jon at 72 miles. It gets dark and realise that running through the night is a lot of fun. Don’t eat enough. Opt for Frijj chocolate milk to get some easy calories in. At the 82 mile checkpoint, Jon tells me we’re finished with the hills. Then we immediately have to climb another huge one.

Race day plus around 24 hours The sun comes up. We still have another ten miles to go. Reduced to a power hike. Want to get it over and done with but running hurts. Stomach hurts. See Dad two miles before the end. Cry a bit. Cross the finish line in 25 hours and 34 minutes. Cry a lot. Sit down and try to eat a bacon sandwich. Can’t get up again.

Post race week Live in my race t-shirt. Take race buckle everywhere. Can’t believe I ran 100 miles. Think I like 100 mile races. Maybe it’s ‘my distance’. Dream about running sub-24 hours next time.

2 weeks after NDW100 Sign up for South Downs Way 100 next June.

What happened at Trans Gran Canaria

It’s about eight in the morning and I’ve just arrived at checkpoint four in Fontanales. I’ve been running since 11:00pm the previous day, have missed a night’s sleep and have covered a marathon distance in the nine hours since the start. I grab a ham and cheese sandwich and sit by the side of the road for half an hour, contemplating the future of my race.

I am on target to complete the race in 25 to 30 hours; what I’d estimated it’d take. But fatigue has started to set in, my right hip hurts and I’m having minor stomach issues. A small ziplock bag of painkillers in one hand, I ask a marshal what the process is for withdrawing. Then Lucja comes around the corner and into the checkpoint. I tell her I’m not sure I should continue and we agree to take the next stage easy together. I remind myself that, in the final few hours of darkness, I’d promised myself to stick things out until daylight, at least.

I think back to the first 20 kilometres of the race, which had been positive. The first ten kilometres, hiking in procession with hundreds of flickering head torches stretching into the night like a string of fairy lights up the mountain. After over 1,000m of climbing, we reach the first checkpoint, then descend steeply down the mountain on the other side. The trail is rocky and crooked, and I am grateful that the darkness hides the steep, exposed drops below. By 4:00am, the novelty of running at night starts to wane. Checkpoint two and another steep ascent; the lack of sleep starts to kick in and my eyes hurt from focussing on my footing in the dark.

Daylight comes and I’m running through a pine forest with a soft carpet of needles underfoot. I eat regularly: cold pizza, kinder chocolate, bananas. Just hours before I’d turned off my head torch and pulled up by the side of the trail with the onset of an upset stomach, so resolve to eat small amounts as often as I can.

IMG_20150308_110315 (1)

As Lucja and I make our way out of Fontanales into the Cararian countryside, the path turns from soft trails to hard, rutted concrete. We are some of the very few runners without hiking poles, but this doesn’t really concern us, as neither of us have used them before, so don’t know what we’re missing out on.

My stomach and hip check in with me at regular intervals. My feet feel good and the sun is shrouded in cloud, making the temperature much more bearable than it could be. We are moving slowly, but considering the steep gradient of the hills we’re climbing, this is to be expected. I try to mask my tiredness with strong, sugary coffee from the aid stations and return to my mantra at increasingly regular intervals towards the latter stage of my race. It’s an adventure. I’m out in the wild, doing something I love. But another voice in my head reasons that an adventure is not a 30 hour death march, nor is it something that should jeopardise your chances of being able to run for the rest of the year.

We make a steep, rocky descent into checkpoint eight at Tejeda, alongside someone else who is wondering if they should continue on. Lucja is strong and I tell her to go ahead. I am devastated not to be able to run the last 60+ kilometres, but another twelve hours of pain is not my idea of an adventure either.

I think every runner that drops out of a race questions their decision to do so, and wonders if they could and should have dug a bit deeper. In fact, I doubt most of us would make it to the start line of extreme events like Trans Gran Canaria if we weren’t the sort of people always striving to walk the line between our every day lives and one where our emotional and physical selves are pushed to the limit. In the next few hours after dropping I am very sick and I realise I’ve come a bit to close to the barrier that normally stops me from getting injured, from being logical, for seeing things for what they really are. My time spent in the medical tent in Garañón, next to someone who has clearly become very disillusioned about his limitations and what his body is capable of, makes me even more aware of this. He hasn’t eaten for 12 hours, is vomiting and is sure he wants to continue, but somehow the medical staff convince him otherwise.

I spent a lot of time during the painful few hours before my DNF, and during my time in the medical tent afterwards, contemplating the future of my running, and questioning whether I could complete the 100 mile race planned in August. But after a good night’s sleep, I resolve to channel the lessons learned from Trans Gran Canaria into facing my next challenge head on. It might take a while for my body to heal, but when it does I’ll be stronger and better prepared for it.


Running and the moments that make up your life

Since Atacama (and a spontaneous marathon in Chile the week after), my legs haven’t really wanted to start training again for next year’s races. It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with running, rather, my body and mind have just needed longer to recover than usual, which I suppose is to be expected after taking on a race of such magnitude.

Not running over 60 miles a week frees up a lot of hours, which have come in handy. I’ve had time to focus on my side projects and coaching. I attended Jasyoga’s Monday Night Reset, which I can’t recommend enough to runners looking to undo some of the issues that come about from constant forward motion in a single plane. Erin is a brilliant teacher and the sessions were also a great excuse to hang out with friends and make new ones. After the final class of the three-week course, we headed to the pub to thank our bodies for the things it lets us do in a different way by feeding it with beer and burgers, while discussing our upcoming races.

It’s not often I want to do the same race twice, but in just under six weeks, I’ll be running from Wendover to London again. Country to Capital is basically a 44 mile race to the pub in Paddington, but this time around I’m looking forward to taking it easy and running with friends. It’ll also be one of my longest training runs for next year’s big race, Trans Gran Canaria.

Jurassic coast1

On Sunday, I headed to Dorset to run with two friends I met at a race last year. Susie and Gemma are both incredible ultra runners, with races like Marathon des Sables and UTMB under their belts. I think it would be fair to say that, like me, both have discovered running later in their lives, but have completed some of the toughest events in the world, which really proves you can do anything you put your mind to in ultra running (and life in general).

The run was my longest since Atacama and my legs really felt the miles; there was a lot of mud and nearly 1,000m of climbing in total over the 20 mile coastal route. But I came away from the trip not worrying about the fact I’d found the hills and terrain tough, but grateful to have had the opportunity to run in a beautiful part of the country with friends. It’s experiences like this that keep me excited about running long distances.

For me, running has always been about having amazing experiences with like-minded people, and Atacama and the past month have really reinforced this. So next year,  I’m planning a social trip to Fort William to do just this, for a weekend of training in the Scottish Highlands. It’s open to anyone that’s free on 7-8 February and doesn’t mind staying in no-frills settings while doing a lot of running. If it’s something that sounds of interest then drop me an email and I’ll send out more detailed plans.

Moving on from the Atacama Crossing

Atacama aftermath post

It’s nearly a week after the Atacama Crossing and I still can’t find the words to tell my loved ones about the time I spent in the desert. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve drunk too much wine. I’ve consoled myself with the fact that I’m travelling around Chile for two weeks, before returning home to a dream job and people whose love and support is unconditional.

There’s a marathon in Los Angeles, 12 hours south of Santiago by bus, a week after Atacama. Jon’s running and I want to join him. My head says, rest up, but with two weeks of altitude training in my lungs, I can’t resist the chance to race a flat, easy course. A novelty foreigner, I run hard, thinking only of the prize money at stake, and finish proud in three hours and 23 minutes. Third lady, with just over £200 in my pocket. I don’t regret anything.

I’m familiar with the post-race blues. I’ve written about them before. But this time the fug takes longer to lift. Three weeks on and I’m still not sure it has. I’m reticent to jump straight in and enter new races. The ultra-marathon roller coaster isn’t easy to get off once you’re on it: I’m in love with the experiences, the freedom. The people I meet and the solitude at the same time. Maybe slightly addicted too.

I put a lot of asks on my body while training for Atacama, and during the race itself too. Part of the reason I don’t want to set new race goals just yet is because I still want to soak up the experience of the desert. I also don’t like to take my body for granted. The miles stay in my legs for longer than I think. Although they feel well rested now, a few short runs and my hip flexors are tight and sore, so it’s back to stretching. Cycling to get places rather than running there.

Yoga helps me to check back in with my mind and undo some of the miles I ran in the desert. ‘After Atacama’: I said this a lot in the lead-up to the race. I’ll catch up with friends after Atacama. There’ll be time to get this-and-that-in-my-life back on track after Atacama. Now it’s after Atacama and I’m still not quite in the right frame of mind to be getting on with all these things just yet. But, like my body, my mind is still healing as well. And hell, if I want to lie in rather than doing a park run, or watch repeat episodes of Breaking Bad all afternoon, then I will. No drama.

Mind over matter: I guess it’s no big secret that a race like Atacama is the ultimate test of this. And when highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the matter is much tougher than before, I probably shouldn’t be alarmed that it takes my mind longer to bounce back.

I learned a lot during Atacama, like the importance of running my own race, rather than someone else’s. I went in without any new races on the horizon, as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after completing such a big goal. I considered dabbling in triathlon or racing shorter events, but now that it’s over, I’m still just as much in love with running long distances as I was before. So in 2015, there will be 125 kilometres at Trans Gran Canaria and my first 100 miler. I think my mind is ready to do it again, and hopefully my legs will follow.

Atacama Crossing: Learnings

Atacama panorama

It would be fair to say that preparing for the Atacama Crossing was a complete guessing game in terms of kit and training. Although my main objective was to travel as light as possible, I didn’t have an infinite budget to splash on expensive, techy kit that I might only use once. Similarly, living in a big city made it difficult to find trails to train on that replicated the technical desert terrain (hashtag London runner problems). Below are some things that worked well, stuff that didn’t and what I’d do differently next time (hypothetically; I don’t have plans to do another desert race in the immediate future).


This is by no means a definitive list, as what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. But overall I was really happy with my kit choices: my pack weighted in as one of the lightest and I wasn’t too cold at night, despite having minimal gear.

Salomon Speedcross trainers: Trainers are a very individual thing, but I really loved everything about these. The tread was perfect and they felt sturdy and supportive. They drained well over the multiple river crossings and, most importantly, they didn’t let in any sand, which was a problem for competitors with predominantly mesh trainers.

X-Bionic Fennec top: I liked this – it was comfortable and didn’t chafe, but it didn’t exactly work miracles either. I still felt hot in the heat of the day and reckon a white, technical top at a fraction of the price (it retails at around £90) would have worked just as well.

Skins shorts: I initially felt short-changed when I discovered these didn’t have zips or pockets, but this was probably the best thing about them, as there were no excess features to rub or chafe. Very comfy.

lululemon Stuff Your Bra: supportive running bra with the added bonus of pockets that came in handy for transporting blister tape, loo roll, spork, etc, around camp.

Karrimor anti blister socks: most competitors ran in a combination of toe-socks and Drymax socks, but I stuck with what I was familiar with and was really happy. I had a few blisters but nothing you wouldn’t expect from running 250k across a lot of water and sand.

Inov-8 gaiters: my decision not to take full-shoe gaiters paid off, partly because of my footwear, but these kept out sand where the dunes were over the ankle. I’d use them again.

OMM Adventure light 20l pack: I really loved this bag – it was the perfect size for a small-framed person wanting to race light. In a world where a lot of bags are made for men, this is a great female-friendly option.

Mountain Hardware sleeping bag: this did the job but wasn’t the lightest or warmest out there. If money was no object I’d take a PHD Minimus Down bag next time.

Klymit X-light sleeping frame: I considered not taking a mat but am very glad I did – the race would have been misery and doom without one. Once I’d got the knack of not rolling off it, it was comfy, but I’d be tempted to take a larger, foam one next time, as a lot of time was spent hanging around camp and attempting to stretch, post-running.

Atacama kit1

Fuel: I thought I’d beaten the system when I discovered instant noodles that were of a similar high-calorie-to-gramme ratio as freeze-dried meals and tasted great too (and were a lot cheaper). But in the desert, they got a bit monotonous and I struggled to eat 800kcals in one go, so in future I’d probably take a mix of freeze dried meals and instant noodles, divided into a couple of smaller 400kcal portions.

The same goes for the rest of my food: protein bars and nuts tasted OK (by the second day I’d lost my appetite anyway), but not great. When fellow competitor Emily shared her crunched up salt and vinegar crisps with me they tasted incredible so I’d definitely pack these in future.

Electrolytes: I’d only ever used these in tablet form (like Nuun), but when I realised I’d need about six tubes to meet the mandatory requirement (too much weight) I took a chance and just packed s-caps. Although I’d tried them out in training, it was under less sweaty conditions so it was hard to know how many I’d need. So I guessed, then added a few more for good measure. I planned to take them roughly every hour, but when my watch broke early on, I did it based on when my fingers started to puff up from water retention (maybe don’t try that at home though).


I was happy overall with my training and, finishing as 2nd lady and 13th overall, must have done something right. But having trained predominantly on city trails (think Richmond Park, the Thames towpath, Wimbledon Common: off-road but not particularly technical), these were nothing compared to the tough terrain in the desert (think, big rocks, gorges, soft sand, rivers.). If I did the race again I’d get out to the wilderness and run on some more technical ground (eg the North Downs Way, Scottish Highlands, or Lake District). As with the big European races like UTMB, it’s no great secret that the runners that excel at these are the ones that live and train in the mountains, so it goes without saying that replicating race conditions as much as possible in training is the way to go.